Woman Gains Silver Star -- And Removal From Combat

Army Spec. Monica Brown was awarded the Silver Star for treating wounded soldiers under fire after their convoy was attacked in Afghanistan. She is the second woman to receive the award since World War II. Video by Ann Scott Tyson/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

KHOST, Afghanistan -- Pfc. Monica Brown cracked open the door of her Humvee outside a remote village in eastern Afghanistan to the soft pop of bullets shot by Taliban fighters. But instead of taking cover, the 18-year-old medic grabbed her bag and ran through gunfire toward fellow soldiers in a crippled and burning vehicle.

Vice President Cheney pinned Brown, of Lake Jackson, Tex., with a Silver Star in March for repeatedly risking her life on April 25, 2007, to shield and treat her wounded comrades, displaying bravery and grit. She is the second woman since World War II to receive the nation's third-highest combat medal.

Within a few days of her heroic acts, however, the Army pulled Brown out of the remote camp in Paktika province where she was serving with a cavalry unit -- because, her platoon commander said, Army restrictions on women in combat barred her from such missions.

"We weren't supposed to take her out" on missions "but we had to because there was no other medic," said Lt. Martin Robbins, a platoon leader with Charlie Troop, 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, whose men Brown saved. "By regulations you're not supposed to," he said, but Brown "was one of the guys, mixing it up, clearing rooms, doing everything that anybody else was doing."

In Afghanistan as well as Iraq, female soldiers are often tasked to work in all-male combat units -- not only for their skills but also for the culturally sensitive role of providing medical treatment for local women, as well as searching them and otherwise interacting with them. Such war-zone pragmatism is at odds with Army rules intended to bar women from units that engage in direct combat or collocate with combat forces.

Military personnel experts say that as a result, the 1992 rules are vague, ill defined, and based on an outmoded concept of wars with clear front lines that rarely exist in today's counterinsurgencies.

"The current policy is not actionable," concluded a Rand Corp. study last year on the Army's assignment of women. "Crafted for a linear battlefield," the policy does not conform to the nature of warfare today and uses concepts such as "forward and well forward [that] were generally acknowledged to be almost meaningless in the Iraqi theater," it said.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, noncombat units in which women serve face many of the same threats that all-male combat arms units do and are performing well, commanders say. "Army personnel were consistent in their perception that a strict adherence to the Army policy would have negative implications" and that the policy should be revised or revoked, the Rand study said.

The Caretaker and Boss

Brown never imagined she would be a soldier, let alone one decorated for gallantry in combat. Growing up in central Texas, she had bounced around to nine schools, moving frequently with her brothers and mother, a nurse, before going to live with her grandmother Katy at age 15.

Despite the itinerant life, Brown excelled academically. She graduated from high school a year and a half early -- a day after turning 17. She planned to enroll in college, but that changed when her brother Justin, who was a year older and like a twin, was drawn to the Army.

Justin had long dreamed of becoming an infantryman, and one day they stopped by the recruiting office together, Brown said in an interview in Khost. On impulse, she offered to join with him. Grinning, they announced the decision to their grandmother, who said she "didn't feel it was the right time with the war on."

But Brown persuaded her grandmother to allow her to join with her brother before she turned 18. Justin "was older, but she was always the caretaker, always the boss," Katy Brown said.

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